FEATURE 

Delivering Extra Value

Recessionista handbags, frugal food – and more words on the page. Peter Genower looks at how magazines are weathering hard times…

By Peter Genower

The credit crunch: it sinks its teeth into us in different ways. Investment reservoirs turn to paltry puddles and pension pots crack. But sales of home-guzzled alcohol soar, and frozen food suddenly becomes a retail hotspot. Shoe sales climb and consumption of Branston Pickle goes up by a spicy 41%. Both logical and crazy, the recession alters so many aspects of our lives – and it changes what we read in magazines.

Top end fashion magazines have had to throttle back on the way they reflect indulgent lifestyles; home magazines and the practical monthlies have added in a mix of make-do-and-mend, travel magazines get lyrical about fish and chips and English beaches, and hobby and sport magazines are more about cost-shaving tips than shopping sprees for the latest gear.

The recession has been felt on every editorial floor, the advertising famine resulting in a sharp reduction in editorial pages and a subsequent cull of staff and freelancers. Every publishing company has imposed a recruitment freeze and there is a determined drive to get journalists to raise their output. On magazines and newspapers, writers who used to spend time checking and polishing features and news stories, are now required to write their usual quota - and fuel the hungry furnace of a website.

And as magazine staffers pedal harder, what appears on the page has changed too. This has been most apparent in the upmarket magazines, where editors have been faced with a tricky dilemma. Do they adjust the magazine to be a practical help in straightened times, or promote their title as a warm refuge, a glossy, perfumed escape from a cruel world. The result is a curious mix of dream-weaving and belt-tightening.

The first British magazine to embrace the recession and turn it into a positive was Marie Claire with its ‘Happy Issue’ in April. Strongly marketed as a feelgood special, it included features on mood-enhancing makeup and ‘shoe nirvana - irresistible shoe styles for all budgets’. Readers could sample stories of how five women finally found contentment, dip into expert tips on how to get happy and laugh at a Comic Relief joke-fest featuring the UK’s top comedians.

One magazine that has also turned the financial crisis into a virtue is Good Housekeeping. Devoting her editor’s letter in the May issue to the recession, editorial director Lindsay Nicholson wrote: “When people are losing their livelihoods – and these job losses are especially affecting women – is it wrong to talk about frocks, shoes and bags? Or does a little bit of trivia cheer us up?” Nicholson went on to announce a major refresh for GH, including features on making clothes last longer and a ‘return to real food’.

Putting its money where its mouth was, Nicholson claimed that the GH redesign had built in value for money, resulting in 25% more words on the page “without compromising readability.” Says Nicholson: “We launched in 1922 and we’ve kept publishing through recession and depression, world war, cold war and the three-day week, so recent events are just par for the course for us. I think it’s important to get as much information as possible on the page. Creative use of white space has about as much use as a banker’s bonus these days. I have also noticed that finance features are more popular than ever before; I try to make sure we have at least one on the cover each month. Another surprising success was when our consumer director interviewed Lib-Dem politician Vince Cable about the economic situation. It scored higher in our research than the fashion, which is probably a first for a women’s magazine. And our top scoring article of the year so far has been a feature entitled ‘Join the Frugal Food Revolution’, which was a call to action, fronted by Prue Leith, to get back to simple, hearty eating.”

Recycling fashions

Fashion magazines have faced the escapism / practical dilemma by inventing their own language to help top-drawer readers justify an extravagant purchase - or come up with a convincing story about why they’re still wearing last year’s outfits. Witness a smart new angle on accessories with the fashion mags’ 2009 favourite, the recessionista handbag, a slightly more practical bag than the over-the-top models flaunted in the heady days of plenty – and now favoured by trend-setters like Victoria Beckham, not someone known for checking the loose change in her purse. Ads for Prada and Chanel may sit uneasily on the page in the middle of a recession, but fashion magazines have always been about dreams and fantasy, so they’ve come out fighting to maintain their relevance in today’s stormy seas.

This is a market confident enough to launch the extravagant and luxurious Love in the spring, so now they talk of investing, not buying. The best way to regard that £2000 Armani dress is to see it as a slinky, low-cut hedge-fund, but one that will never let you down. And strapped-for cash upmarket readers need no longer worry about wearing last year’s dresses – old is the new new. Vogue’s July cover carried the coverline ‘90 Timeless Pieces’, and the feature included £10 Topshop bangles, a £32 Swatch watch, and an item extolling the virtues of vintage shops, the upscale version of jumble sales, where you can buy old classics for a snip – and still be the epitome of cool. Harper’s Bazaar’s website went one further in March with its main feature ‘10 Tips for Shopping Your Closet’, a brilliantly delivered idea in which readers, unable to splash out on something extravagant and new, were encouraged to revisit their wardrobes and lash together a new look from last year’s potential chuck-outs. Find a good pedigree cardy, enthused the feature, and throw it over a silk dress or evening gown. It went on: “Even if the one you have is old and rife with moth holes, it’s OK. Distressed is in.”

Easy Living’s website in August encouraged similar advice for the cash-challenged reader. As well as tips on transforming a charity shop cardy, readers were urged to resuscitate old dresses. “Any self respecting thrift shopper will know the joys of dyeing clothes,” it asserted. “Throw a dowdy frock into the machine with a box of hot-pink dye and be prepared to be wowed.”

To summarise the way many magazine editorial pages have dealt with the recession, it has been to hang a ‘business as usual’ sign on the door, but to bring a finely-judged awareness of the economic situation to their pages. Regular features have been re-angled to work in tight times. Price is everything, as demonstrated in April by Grazia’s feature ‘The Thrifty Fifty – fabulous fashion pick-me-ups for under £50’ and in August by More’s ‘30 Catwalk Classics for under £25’. Prima’s ‘Cool to be Frugal’ story in August also focused on saving cash - and the tips in the feature itself were truly frugal. Readers were encouraged to abandon the tumble dryer and hang clothes on the line, and to text their friends instead of phoning them.

Loyal enthusiasts

Special interest magazines can be particularly resilient in a recession, as hard-pressed consumers hunker down with whatever hobby or passion turns them on. Expenditure on their hobby is often ring-fenced in the family budget. Future Publishing balked the trend this summer by launching a timely Cycling Plus one-shot, Ride to Work - and the monthly Triathlon Plus which plugged into a growing fitness trend that you don’t need a fortune to pursue – a decent bike and a pair of running shoes. Editorial director Jim Douglas says: “Even though the prevailing climate is horrible we still think we can make a product stick if we can make it good and relevant.” Douglas thinks that in the middle of a depression, sports titles benefit from a general public mood toward getting out and doing things. “There’s a post-9/11 mood of ‘life’s too short’,” he says, “plus a significant spend now, worry later aspect, and a move to live life to the full.”

Although Douglas admits that Future titles, as many others, are “rammed full of belt-tightening advice features”, he says that from a creative point of view the downturn can be a breath of fresh air. “On Mountain Biking UK, we ran a Scrapheap Challenge style piece where two of our team members were given a tiny budget to create and race bikes virtually from old bits. On one hand, it’s a recession busting piece, showing readers some practical ways to refurb bikes, but it is also very entertaining and showcases the team’s technical skills too.”

At IPC Media, Hamish Dawson, publishing director of the sport and recreation titles, agrees that the focus has been on practical, helpful features and money saving tips rather than reflective, escapist writing. “We’ve tended to steer away from talking about the tough times, on the basis that everyone knows they’re tough,” says Dawson. “And while they might be grateful for practical ideas that save them a bob or two, they don’t need to be reminded they’re living in lean times.” The big advantage today, says Dawson, is that editors can stay close to their readers via their websites and get an immediate sense of their fears and desires. “Mike Morris on Golf Monthly spends a huge amount of time on the website forum, exchanging posts with his readers. Websites have given magazines a fantastic, immediate means of plugging into how readers are feeling – invaluable when the going gets rough.”

One major magazine sector that is less susceptible to the banking crisis is the easy entertainment sector of the mass market women’s weeklies. Titles like Take a Break, Chat and Pick Me Up have had their share of ‘Recession Made Us Stick Together’ stories but Gilly Sinclair, editor of Chat, says her readers have been less affected than upmarket titles. “Chat readers are so totally used to living on a budget and managing money that this isn’t anything new to them. They’re also life’s copers and so a recession is just something you get on with – provided of course, they’ve got a job. Readers in this sector have always favoured Primark over Prada.”

In other sectors, travel magazines have cut back on selling paradise and lowered their horizons. August’s Conde Nast Traveller carried the main coverline ‘Best of Britain. 30 Sensational Ways to Spend a Weekend.’ And in the home finance sector, you have to admire the sheer chutzpah of August’s Moneywise. Their main feature was tagged ‘Give Yourself a £10,000 Pay Rise: Simple Tips to Make Your Money Go Further’.

While some magazines can make the most of hard times, many editors I spoke to were concerned about the effect of staff and pagination cuts. Gill Hudson, who recently relinquished the editorship of Radio Times to become editor of Reader’s Digest, says that while publishers and editors will talk bravely of protecting content at all costs, there are some real dangers inherent in a downturn. “The reality is that editorial becomes less experimental, we take fewer risks,” says Hudson. “For a start we have fewer pages to work with, and the money needs to work harder. At times like this it gets harder and harder to break the mould, to try out the unusual. So magazines could lose their creative spark.”

Hudson also believes that staff and freelance cuts could mean that magazines are in danger of losing one of their key strengths – quality. “There could be a slow, almost undetectable deterioration in quality,” she says. “Journalists don’t have so much time to polish that well rounded piece, and if they’re writing two or three pieces for the web as well as their normal work quota, something has to give.”

Sharing resources

One way publishers have tried to cut costs on small circulation magazines is by creating ‘content hubs’ where a group of sub-editors and designers handle a number of titles. Reed Business Information tried this ‘publishing village’ idea several years ago, with limited success, and now some of the Bauer special interest titles are pooling editorial resources in this way. Savings are made, but the big question is whether the unique qualities of a brand can be maintained when the magazine is subbed and designed by journalists who aren’t committed to a particular title. The jury is still out, but some publishers privately believe that these ‘page factories’ will be an inevitable result of the current squeeze, especially on small titles, and that we’ll see more of them springing up – as is already happening in regional newspaper groups.

One area for change, long term, could be the sharing of content between magazines, perhaps even between rivals. Some American newspapers, for example deadly rivals the Dallas Evening News and the Fort Worth Star-Telegraph are already cutting costs by agreeing to send only one reporter to a news event or press conference. That reporter’s story is shared, rewritten and re-angled, and the magazine or newspaper focuses its editorial firepower on the things that make a difference – big exclusives, hot columnists, opinion-forming, reflective features – and attractive marketing offers. Though it sticks in the throats of many editors, this idea may become commonplace in the UK, especially where magazine publishers have several titles in one market sector – and have the added headache of sustaining constantly-refreshed websites.

No one can escape the long-term effects of a deep recession. Coupled with the pain magazines are feeling as sales fall, the advertising pot shrinks, and websites sponge up cash, the pressure to cut costs will continue and some publishers will consider previously unthinkable ways to ramp up the revenue.

Cover up for grabs

That’s why editors in the UK will be concerned to hear of the latest American tactic to increase advertising revenue. It seems that the last bastion of editorial freedom, the cover, is up for sale. This year, Hearst’s Esquire and House Beautiful and Time Warner’s Entertainment Weekly have all sold part of their covers for the first time. The cover of February’s Esquire, showing an artworked portrait of President Obama, had a ‘trap door’ in the cover next to the President’s ear, carrying the words ‘Open here’. Opening the flap revealed a taster for issue content, and an advertisement for the Discovery TV channel. Discovery paid a reputed $250,000 for the ads (including a single page inside).

House Beautiful’s September cover included a cover pouch containing a paint chart with decorating hints and tips, and an advertisement for Glidden paint. An April issue of Entertainment Weekly contained a pocket with a pullout ad for a new TV series The Unusuals and this autumn the same magazine is planning a video advertising cover, where a small screen on the cover will play a 90-second ad, complete with sound. While the American Society of Magazine Editors expressed concern at this mixing of editorial and ads, the publishers bravely talked about innovation and creativity. By this time next year, what are the odds against the same thing happening here – finally breaching the ads-on-the-cover taboo?

As publishers search for ways to sustain their business, editorial goes on reflecting the way readers deal with recessionary times. The richer you are, the harder you fall, and Country Life, the upmarket weekly famed for its lucrative property advertising, probably has a bigger percentage of readers who are feeling the pinch. The magazine’s feature content has been remarkably spirited, proclaiming the pleasures of a Britain that seems far from a country in the grip of a financial crisis – one August issue included the revival of grand country homes, the joys of gypsy horses, and of course, girls in pearls.

But if any single magazine feature has been a constant touchstone of economic wilt, it is Annie Tempest’s Country Life cartoon strip Tottering By Gently which has presented a weekly microcosm of life for the hard-up rich. Some weeks, the strip has focused on the tiny irrelevances of life (women who take ages to get ready to go out: the perils of exercise). Then abruptly we are reminded of Le Crunch. One Tottering strip in April showed a country gent tending hundreds of green seedlings in his greenhouse. He tells his wife: “I get fed up waiting for the government to plant them.” In another strip, a couple walk their Labrador through a lighted tunnel (like you do). In the last frame, everything is in darkness and the caption reads: “Owing to the current global recession, the light at the end of the tunnel has been turned off.”

In so many different ways, magazines are holding up a mirror to ourselves as we feel the heat of recession. But when the dust settles and the Footsie soars back into orbit, social historians will need look no further than Tottering By Gently in Country Life to throw light on the way we dealt with the Great Depression of the Noughties.